Why You Want a Mastery Mindset

As an attorney, you are very concerned about outcomes: Win the case, keep the client happy, spot the problems before they happen. Often, whether or not you have succeeded is obvious to everyone.

What if we told you that you will get better outcomes if you held the outcomes loosely and released your worry over them? And, instead, your work ethic put your focus squarely on your own process of how you get your work done. In other words, take on the mind of a master: pursue a mastery orientation.

Mastery has a lot to do with performance, satisfaction, and happiness.

What is Mastery?

There’s a number of different ways to think about mastery, but we really like this explanation from author and artist Sarah Lewis: 

Mastery requires endurance. Mastery, a word we don’t use often, is not the equivalent of what we might consider its cognate — perfectionism — an inhuman aim motivated by a concern with how others view us. Mastery is also not the same as success — an event-based victory based on a peak point, a punctuated moment in time. Mastery is not merely a commitment to a goal, but to a curved-line, constant pursuit.  

Essentially, a mastery orientation is the intentional pursuit of excellence through continuous learning and improvement. It’s not tied to any specific outcome or success moment, and it’s not perfectionism. Mastery involves mistakes and experiences that don’t look like “successes”.  It’s a commitment to the process of getting better.

When we have a mastery mindset and focus our attention on the process instead of the outcome, the outcome becomes just another data point. We prioritize pursuing and improving our own process in part by making thoughtful observations around how we execute on our process. In doing so, we let go of the WIN/LOSE mentality.  

It’s a classic sports interview moment for an athlete to be asked about the BIG GAME and reply that she is going to “play her game” and “let the scoreboard take care of the rest.” That athlete knows that her game takes place in the NOW and that, on the field, concerns about the past and the future subtract from the energy and performance of her game.  

Three Laws of Mastery

Daniel Pink in his book Drive summarizes some key research around mastery when he describes what he calls three “laws of mastery”.  

Mastery is an Asymptote

One of these laws is Mastery is an Asymptote. Because it is about the process of pursuing excellence and striving to get better, it is not so much about arriving. Like an asymptote, we’ll never quite get there; there will always be more to learn and more ways to grow. Some people therefore refer to mastery as a “practice.”   

Mastery is a Mindset

A second of Pink’s laws is that Mastery is a Mindset . This is drawn from Carol Dweck’s and others’ research around how mindsets effect learning. How we think about ourselves and our abilities—our “self-theories”—determine what we experience and what we think we can accomplish. We learn best when we know we’re in a process and our value is not fixed to an outcome.  

A mastery orientation involves setting goals for learning rather than outcome. So, instead of “I want to get an A on this French test” my goal would be “I want to know my best process for learning French,” in which case the grade I get on my test is primarily feedback for how well my process is working for me. 

I can have a mastery orientation and still set performance goals. I can have a mastery mindset and still desire and achieve success. My team can still hold itself accountable to measurable goals.  

However, having primarily an outcome or performance-focused orientation has been shown to have some drawbacks: 

  • Less perseverance 
  • Less resilience in the face of adversity 
  • More difficulty applying concepts creatively to new situations 
  • Less intrinsic motivation/ more external locus of control 
  • Less engagement 
  • Less integrative and deep learning 
  • Weaker Team Work 

Mastery is a Pain

Daniel Pink’s third law of mastery is Mastery is a Pain.  In other words, mastery takes grit, or “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” It takes targeted effort and perseverance through learning plateaus and through outcomes that are not necessarily “successes”. 

Obstacles to a Mastery Mindset

It can be very difficult for us to embrace a strong mastery orientation, for a number of good reasons. We’re sure you could think of many, and we’ve created an extensive list of our own. Here’s a few things we think interfere with developing a mastery mindset:

  • Most likely the educational system you grew up in assessed you on your outcomes, from elementary through law school; this is how we’re accustomed to being evaluated and quite often, this is how we evaluate ourselves
  • In your profession, outcomes likely carry significant weight; what happens with the project, the case, or the product (and getting paid for it) really do matter, so of course this takes the bulk of our attention
  • The lawyer personality can tend towards perfectionism, and part of the job is inherently looking for the negative and mitigating outcomes
  • The billable hour doesn’t allow time for real learning and mastery because we can’t bill for that, so it becomes difficult to invest time and energy in mastery goals
  • It’s very hard to adopt a mastery orientation when you live in a “performance climate” 

Setting Goals

Understandably, we can’t completely let go of outcomes. However, we can let go of them such that concerns about the future and the past don’t interfere with our focus and energy in the moment. When our primary focus is on the outcome we encounter the drawbacks above as well as decreased enjoyment and satisfaction in our work. In addition, we tend to only set outcome-focused goals. 

In any activity, there’s a number of different kinds of goals we can set.

Performance-Avoidance Goals

These are goals we set with the purpose of avoiding some particular outcome or event. For example, we may have the goal of “not looking incompetent” or of avoiding a particular mistake. Research has shown performance-avoidance goals to be less effective not only in supporting learning but also in creating great outcomes.

Performance-Approach Goals

These are goals we set for the purpose of achieving a specific positive outcome such as “winning the case” or “getting and A on the exam.” They are much more motivating than performance-avoidance goals. However, they contain significant judgment and can lead to the drawbacks listed above.

Mastery Goals

These are learning goals we set for the purpose of getting better at something regardless of the outcome of the task at hand. The focus here is on longer-term performance and the development of a skill, practice, characteristic, or variable that will contribute to my overall success.

Core Goals

Core goals reflect my long-range ultimate goals around happiness, identity, and purpose– what I most want out of life.

Try this Exercise

As a way to practice creating a mastery mindset, try this exercise and see what insights arise for you.

  1. Assume, for the moment, that it’s true that your outcomes will not suffer if you don’t worry about the outcome and shift your focus to your process. 
  2. Think about having a mastery mindset: you are doing your work and not having any concerns about the outcome while you are not only fully invested in your work but also in improving the way that you work.  
  3. What would that feel like? What’s one word that summarizes that?  
  4. What would have to be true about you to have that mastery mindset?  

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